Funeral services with full military honors will be held tomorrow at Riverside National Cemetery for Dennis Cross, whom God called on August 7 after a battle with brain cancer. And in Anaheim and beyond, thousands of people will mourn.
His family knew him as "The Menace," but for generations of Anaheimers, he was simply Mr. Cross, a son of the South and former Marine who ended up being a history teacher at Anaheim High School from 1970 until his retirement in 2009. His official obituary talks about how he "was an enthusiastic motivator for his students, challenging them to achieve to their highest potentials and was equally well loved by his students. With a combination of Southern Gentlemen sensibilities and Cultural awareness he sometimes spoke using old Southern slang such as ‘Hello Shugah.'"
All of that is true. I was one of his students (Class of '97 rules!), and I had the honor of doing a feature story on Mr. Cross in 2005 (it should've been a goddamn cover, but Weekly founding editor Will Swaim wanted something "more grabbing" for our front page—sigh...). The prompt was an ¡Ask a Mexican! question written by some racist gabacho teacher who whined that his Mexican students didn't care. My response, in whole:
Wield a yardstick.The best teacher I ever had was Mr. Cross, a crusty former Marine who is retiring from Anaheim High School this summer after teaching history for nearly 40 years. Mr.Cross would yell, throw erasers at talkative kids, swing a yardstick at the dry erase board to get our attention (and one time at my friend's back, but that's another story), but most importantly Mr. Cross would teach. Mr.Cross gave a fuck about us and thus whipped (both figuratively and literally) his overwhelmingly Mexican classes toward academic heights—a Jaime Escalante with a potbelly and a Southern drawl.
Almost everyone performed well because we were in fear of him—my friends and I, all successful young Mexicans, still reminisce about the projects we aced under the glowering, caring eye of Mr. Cross. He knew what our parents know: Mexican kids respond well under the threat of a regaño (a scold that's pregnant with the possibility of a beating). So get some huevos, gabacho, and smack that cholo across the knuckles—the nerds who sit next to him will be ever grateful.
My 2005 feature dug deeper in Mr. Cross to show that his good ol' boy bluster masked a caring man:
We continue to rave about Mr. Cross not because of his bluster or his gut or the judge's gavel he crashed atop a student's desk if the kid dared sleep. We rave because he gave a damn. For every flying-Kleenex box story, there were three stories that guaranteed Señor Cruz a nice spot in the afterlife. How Mr. Cross routinely stayed after school to help just one student even though that meant hopping on the 91 freeway east at rush hour [to Yucaipa]. How he gave the student athletes an ultimatum—do well in school or fail in life—and they actually listened. How, without prompting, Mr. Cross knew a student was down and gave them a perky greeting card. Or a pep talk. Or his home phone number.
Over a decade after I wrote that, I still marvel at the volcano of a man that was Mr. Cross. He was already a relic by the time I took two years of him for my sophomore and junior years in 1995 and 1996; nowadays, a cishet man with a Foghorn Leghorn drawl—a man so Southern that he once draped himself in the Confederate flag at school to punk the students who had taken down the Stars and Stripes and replaced it with a Mexican flag—would be reviled and fired. Never mind that nearly all of Mr. Cross' former students—from State Assemblymember Tom Daly to Congressman Lou Correa to former NFL player Reuben Droughns to so many more—continue to tell stories about how he changed their lives, and the lives of so many other working-class kids. In today's touchy-feely PC pendejo public-education system, no way an old gabacho could possibly understand the needs of Mexican students.
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And yet Mr. Cross did. My favorite Mr. Cross story was one I hinted at over the years in the Weekly but can now fully reveal: in 2003, shortly after Righteous Brothers singer Bobby Hatfield died of cocaine abuse over the years (and that happened shortly after he called me a "lowlife cocksucker" for calling his group "the original wiggers"), I revealed that...well, lemme cite myself:
Hatfield's death brought back for me an anecdote my history teacher once shared with my class at Anaheim High School in the mid-'90s. Seems that my teacher was advisor to the student government during the '80s and had invited Hatfield to perform in front of a lunchtime assembly at Anaheim High. Hatfield—a fellow Colonist who graduated in the late '50s—refused, according to my teacher, because "too many Latino kids" were attending his alma mater by then. While the story may be apocryphal, I've never truly doubted it—my unimpeachable history teacher was a Southern gentleman and ex-Marine, and among the most honorable men I've ever encountered—and Hatfield's end-days homophobia and drug-sniffing affirmed the story for me.
That teacher, of course, was Mr. Cross. I remember the disgust on his face when he told us about Hatfield's snub. It spoke to the caliber of man he was—one of honor, and one who stood by his students, damn the haters.
Goodbye, Mr. Cross. To his family: The Menace's legend will live on, and even beyond his students. And I can already hear him in heaven, telling us all: "I don't want to hear it."